Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Right to Fail - The Right to Learn

My love of the so-called "standards movement" has waned lately.  I see it as a political, rather than educational, movement.  Many years ago, now, I supported the idea because I could see in my teaching environment that both expectations and achievement at a grade level varied dangerously.  This led to both teacher and student frustrations as student moved through the system with widely different educational experiences.  I still favor a system of teacher grade-level "goals" and some form of testing to assess student progress relative to those goals.  What I don't support is the widespread paranoia among educators to push up scores by any means possible.

There is considerable evidence that the brain needs lots of failure before it becomes "smart."  What I mean by that is that the conscious brain is a very small part of the active functioning of the brain.  Like it or not, we all need to experience both success and failure in and area, and the time to reflect on both, before we develop anything approaching expertise or wisdom.

Perhaps the best example of the opportunity of gaining wisdom through failure comes from the airline industry.  As reported in How We Decide,  between 1940 and 1990, no matter what rules and legislative reforms were enacted, the percentage of plane crashes due to pilot error remained at about 65%.  Then, in the early 1990's two things changed in the way pilots were trained.  First, pilots had access to flight simulators, allowing them to practice what they had previously studied only in the classroom.  Not only did they practice, but their trainers WANTED them to make mistakes.   Both successes and failures were rigorously debriefed.  Second, the philosophy of cockpit management changed.  Previously, pilots were the authority in the cockpit.  Pilots, working alone, made errors which could have been avoided if the wisdom of the entire flight crew had been utilized.  A new decision-making strategy was employed with great success.  The strategy is so effective that it is being copied in other high-stakes decision situations like surgery.  Less than 30% of all plane crashes are now attributable to flight crew error.

I see children as hurried in the educational environment.  More time is being put into the topics which are tested.  Old standard techniques, not necessarily supported by science but feeling somehow comfortable to "experienced" educators, are being trotted out again in the effort to push up test scores.  While talking differentiated instruction, meaning that each child gets the instruction they need, the reality is labeling and tracking, discredited techniques from days gone by.  A few are "accelerated." Many are labeled as somehow "less than," and drilled to bring them up towards standard.

There's a wonderful book, The Year of Miss Anges, by Kirkpatrick Hill.  It tells the story of a teacher in a remote one-room schoolhouse in Alaska who truly tailors her "curriculum" to the special talents of her students.  It is so much closer to what I now see as education, real education.  I once read this book to my fourth grade class.  I was curious to learn their response to the book.  At the conclusion of the book, I asked my class for their response.  Predictably, they said that liked it, that it was a good book.  Attempting to go deeper, I asked what made Miss Agnes different.  One of my students responded with a dagger-like sentence:  "She's a good teacher."  I took that personally, and I took it as a challenge.  For me to be a good teacher, I too had to learn to educate the people with whom I worked every day.

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